Catholic Herald staff
Honoring deceased loved ones and reclaiming lost ancestors has brought parishioners at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Strickland together.
Members began a cemetery restoration and enhancement project in spring 2009, said Joanne Antczak, who, with her husband, Don, joined the cemetery committee.
A parish proud of its heritage, Assumption was formed by a community of Polish immigrants in the 1890s. They worshipped in homes, then built a kaplica, one of the small chapels that still dot the Polish countryside, before constructing a church in the mid-1890s. The current church was built in 1923-24 after fire destroyed the original structure.
Located in the Town of Strickland in rural Rusk County, Assumption has been a mission of Ss. Peter and Paul, Weyerhaeuser, and is now clustered with parishes in Barron, Cameron and Chetek. Fr. Jim Bartelme is the sacramental minister, and Fr. Philip Juza is supervising pastor. Approximately 25 to 30 families are members of the parish.
The cemetery project consisted of constructing a stone and metal archway to frame the driveway, as well as a monument to memorialize those buried in unmarked graves. They also wanted to reconstruct the cemetery altar and bring in rocks from parishioners’ family farmsteads and fields to anchor the generations.
Before the restoration began, Assumption’s churchyard cemetery had an altar – traditionally used for celebrating outdoor Mass on All Saints’ Day – but over the decades it had settled and was tilting. The wooden crosses that marked some of the graves had rotted away, and the names of the interred were lost. It would take careful digging – both in the ground and in government records – to properly honor the deceased.
The Antczaks own Antczak Construction, an excavation and landscaping company. Deciding on the placement of the monument was tricky, according to Don, because they didn’t want to disturb any unmarked graves, but they didn’t know exactly where they were located.
By divine providence, it was a massive rock, not a grave, they unearthed at the digging, and now that stone, too, will become part of the memorial. Don plans to landscape around the rock, which is shaped like a shallow seat, for visitors to use.
Antczak Construction poured foundations, leveled the altar and did other work at the site, but the project was a community effort, Don emphasized. James Schroeder recast the old altar’s laurel wreaths, which symbolize the endlessness of God’s love, and he refurbished the vintage crucifix. Others helped research and write a parish history for the archway pillar.
The cutting of the church’s name into the steel archway was also done by a parishioner; many church members contributed rocks from their homes or family farmsteads to build the pillars for the archway, which signifies the doorway to heaven. The congregation also supported the project financially.
“We actually raised more money than we needed,” Don said.
To find the names of those in unmarked graves, parishioner Randy Tatur went digging through old county and township records. Because Assumption is a mission, its records have always been kept at other parishes, so the cemetery committee did not have access to them.
“He did a pretty extensive job,” Don said of Tatur’s research.
Nearly half of the 49 names etched in the monument are those of infants, which speaks to the hardships endured by settlers. Joanne, who is also Polish by heritage, is grateful for pioneers’ sacrifices.
“If it wasn’t for the people who came before us, we wouldn’t be here,” she said.
The project forged a connection among family members of many generations, she observed, but it also brought parishioners together. They shared stories and memories, called up people they hadn’t spoken to in years, and generally grew closer as a community.
Dedication of the archway, altar and monument took place during an outdoor Mass, Aug. 17. Following Mass was the annual parish festival, which included a Polish chicken dinner, raffle, bake sale, rummage sale and bingo. About 600 people attend the dinner each year.